Chelsea's recent resurgence gives them confidence ahead of Man City, Man United
So far, so good. After successive defeats to Bournemouth and Watford, Chelsea faced a testing time with Antonio Conte's future seemingly hanging in the balance. Two wins and one draw later, the prospects for both the club and the manager look much rosier, even if it is still far from clear whether the Italian will still be in the dugout at the start of next season.
Of the three games, clearly the most encouraging match has been the one that ended even, Tuesday night's 1-1 draw with Barcelona. That there is disappointment that the game was not won illustrates just how the landscape has changed in recent weeks. The runaway leaders of La Liga might have dominated possession, but the reigning Premier League champions largely contained that domination and through the precision and pace of their counterattacks were by far the more threatening side.
While the course of the game was positive, there were other aspects from which to take real encouragement. For starters, Conte's tactics were on the money and were reminiscent of his first title-winning season rather than the predictable and limp offerings evident in those two damaging recent losses.
The fact that the players also fully bought into what he was demanding was also gratifying. Some comparisons had been made between Chelsea's downturn in form since the New Year and the last days of Jose Mourinho's second spell, a time when the Portuguese's relationship with some key members of the dressing room clearly broke down. Tuesday night, however, proved that this time the players are still very much listening to their manager and have total faith in his approach.
That Chelsea restated that they have the credentials and ability to match the best sides around will stand them in good stead for an even more demanding period that lies ahead of them. Successive away matches against Manchester United and Manchester City will again see them placed under pressure, so the morale garnered from the display against Barcelona will be vital.
The strategy used on Tuesday that saw the team sit deep for large periods while inserting bursts of high pressing up the field is likely to be replicated when they visit the Etihad Stadium next week. Man City do not play in quite the same way as the current Barcelona side, though they do like to hog the ball. Having just enjoyed some success against such play, Chelsea would be foolish to attempt a different method.
One of the key questions will be whether Conte retains the rapid front three of Eden Hazard, Pedro Rodriguez and Willian that confounded those skeptical of his decision not to select a natural centre-forward in midweek. It allowed Chelsea to be quick enough to expose Barcelona on the counterattack, making the most of the large swathes of grass behind the visitors' back line.
That might make sense against Man City, though Man United's more conservative approach means that the presence of Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud would surely be necessary. The key question then becomes what will Mourinho do about Hazard? In last year's FA Cup meeting between the sides at Stamford Bridge, he instructed his players to kick the Belgian off the pitch through rotational fouling. It didn't work as Chelsea still won 1-0. A month later in the league, Mourinho detailed Ander Herrera to man-mark Hazard and that time it was successful as United waltzed to a comfortable 2-0 victory.
With that in mind, it might make sense to play Hazard further forward to dissuade anyone from man-marking him due to the space that would be created elsewhere on the pitch. As Chelsea showed on Tuesday, if there's too much focus on Hazard, then players of the calibre of Willian will be able to show how dangerous they can be.
Keeping positions fluid across the front line is another option. Mourinho has tried to counter Conte's system by telling his full-backs to keep narrow to negate Chelsea's wide forwards. Regular interchanging between the attackers could help to foil such a tactic and drag their markers out of their positions.
Even so, the likelihood is that Conte will deploy Morata against United, especially considering that it was the Spaniard's towering header that decided the first league meeting between the sides this season. The manager is also likely to retain the 3-4-3 formation from Tuesday. The 3-5-2 has already proved effective in a big away in league games this season, such as the 2-1 win at Tottenham and the eventful 2-2 draw with Arsenal, though with Tuesday fresh in the memory, it would be risky to make any radical changes to the system.
Whatever his chosen approach, Conte will have already fixed his ideas about how to beat this Man United side given his recent verbal fracas with Mourinho. The Italian has been looking forward to this fixture since Autumn for the chance to ram the Portuguese's insults back down his throat. After watching his players against Barcelona, Conte also knows he has a team that can deliver what he desires.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.